|202 BC–9 AD|
25 AD–220 AD
(206 BC–9 AD, 190–195 AD)
(23–190 AD, 196 AD)
|Common languages||Old Chinese|
Chinese folk religion
• 202–195 BC (first)
• 141–87 BC
• 25–57 AD
• 189–220 AD (last)
• 206–193 BC
• 193–190 BC
• 189–192 AD
• 208–220 AD
• 220 AD
• Battle of Gaixia; Han rule of China began
|9 AD–23 AD|
• Abdication to Cao Wei
|50 BC est. (Western Han peak)||6,000,000 km2 (2,300,000 sq mi)|
|100 AD est. (Easter|
The Han dynasty (Chinese: 漢朝; pinyin: Hàncháo) was the second imperial dynasty of China (202 BC–220 AD), established by the rebel leader Liu Bang and ruled by the House of Liu. Preceded by the short-lived Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) and a warring interregnum known as the Chu–Han contention (206–202 BC), it was briefly interrupted by the Xin dynasty (9–23 AD) established by the usurping regent Wang Mang, and was separated into two periods — the Western Han (202 BC–9 AD) and the Eastern Han (25–220 AD), before being succeeded by the Three Kingdoms period (220–280 AD). Spanning over four centuries, the Han dynasty is considered a golden age in Chinese history, and influenced the identity of the Chinese civilization ever since. To this day, China's majority ethnic group refers to themselves as the "Han Chinese", the Sinitic language is known as "Han language", and the written Chinese is referred to as "Han characters".
The emperor was at the pinnacle of Han society. He presided over the Han government but shared power with both the nobility and appointed ministers who came largely from the scholarly gentry class. The Han Empire was divided into areas directly controlled by the central government using an innovation inherited from the Qin known as commanderies, and a number of semi-autonomous kingdoms. These kingdoms gradually lost all vestiges of their independence, particularly following the Rebellion of the Seven States. From the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BC) onward, the Chinese court officially sponsored Confucianism in education and court politics, synthesized with the cosmology of later scholars such as Dong Zhongshu. This policy endured until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 AD.
The Han dynasty saw an age of economic prosperity and witnessed a significant growth of the money economy first established during the Zhou dynasty (c. 1050–256 BC). The coinage issued by the central government mint in 119 BC remained the standard coinage of China until the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD). The period saw a number of limited institutional innovations. To finance its military campaigns and the settlement of newly conquered frontier territories, the Han government nationalized the private salt and iron industries in 117 BC, but these government monopolies were repealed during the Eastern Han dynasty. Science and technology during the Han period saw significant advances, including the process of papermaking, the nautical steering ship rudder, the use of negative numbers in mathematics, the raised-relief map, the hydraulic-powered armillary sphere for astronomy, and a seismometer employing an inverted pendulum that could be used to discern the cardinal direction of distant earthquakes.
The Xiongnu, a nomadic steppe confederation, defeated the Han in 200 BC and forced the Han to submit as a de facto inferior and vassal partner for several decades, but continued their military raids on the Han borders. Emperor Wu launched several military campaigns against them. The ultimate Han victory in these wars eventually forced the Xiongnu to accept vassal status as Han tributaries. These campaigns expanded Han sovereignty and control into the Tarim Basin of Central Asia, divided the Xiongnu into two separate confederations, and helped establish the vast trade network known as the Silk Road, which reached as far as the Mediterranean world. The territories north of Han's borders were quickly overrun by the nomadic Xianbei confederation. Emperor Wu also launched successful military expeditions in the south, annexing Nanyue in 111 BC and Dian in 109 BC, and in the Korean Peninsula where the Xuantu and Lelang Commanderies were established in 108 BC. After 92 AD, the palace eunuchs increasingly involved themselves in court politics, engaging in violent power struggles between the various consort clans of the empresses and empresses dowager, causing the Han's ultimate downfall. Imperial authority was also seriously challenged by large Daoist religious societies which instigated the Yellow Turban Rebellion and the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion. Following the death of Emperor Ling (r. 168–189 AD), the palace eunuchs suffered wholesale massacre by military officers, allowing members of the aristocracy and military governors to become warlords and divide the empire. When Cao Pi, king of Wei, usurped the throne from Emperor Xian, the Han dynasty ceased to exist.
According to the Records of the Grand Historian, after the collapse of the Qin dynasty the hegemon Xiang Yu appointed Liu Bang as prince of the small fief of Hanzhong, named after its location on the Han River (in modern southwest Shaanxi). Following Liu Bang's victory in the Chu–Han Contention, the resulting Han dynasty was named after the Hanzhong fief.
China's first imperial dynasty was the Qin dynasty (221–207 BC). The Qin united the Chinese Warring States by conquest, but their regime became unstable after the death of the first emperor Qin Shi Huang. Within four years, the dynasty's authority had collapsed in the face of rebellion. Two former rebel leaders, Xiang Yu (d. 202 BC) of Chu and Liu Bang (d. 195 BC) of Han, engaged in a war to decide who would become hegemon of China, which had fissured into 18 kingdoms, each claiming allegiance to either Xiang Yu or Liu Bang. Although Xiang Yu proved to be an effective commander, Liu Bang defeated him at Battle of Gaixia (202 BC), in modern-day Anhui. Liu Bang assumed the title "emperor" (huangdi) at the urging of his followers and is known posthumously as Emperor Gaozu (r. 202–195 BC). Chang'an (known today as Xi'an) was chosen as the new capital of the reunified empire under Han.
At the beginning of the Western Han (traditional Chinese: 西漢; simplified Chinese: 西汉; pinyin: Xīhàn), also known as the Former Han (traditional Chinese: 前漢; simplified Chinese: 前汉; pinyin: Qiánhàn) dynasty, thirteen centrally controlled commanderies—including the capital region—existed in the western third of the empire, while the eastern two-thirds were divided into ten semi-autonomous kingdoms. To placate his prominent commanders from the war with Chu, Emperor Gaozu enfeoffed some of them as kings.
By 196 BC, the Han court had replaced all but one of these kings (the exception being in Changsha) with royal Liu family members, since the loyalty of non-relatives to the throne was questioned. After several insurrections by Han kings—the largest being the Rebellion of the Seven States in 154 BC—the imperial court enacted a series of reforms beginning in 145 BC limiting the size and power of these kingdoms and dividing their former territories into new centrally controlled commanderies. Kings were no longer able to appoint their own staff; this duty was assumed by the imperial court. Kings became nominal heads of their fiefs and collected a portion of tax revenues as their personal incomes. The kingdoms were never entirely abolished and existed throughout the remainder of Western and Eastern Han.
To the north of China proper, the nomadic Xiongnu chieftain Modu Chanyu (r. 209–174 BC) conquered various tribes inhabiting the eastern portion of the Eurasian Steppe. By the end of his reign, he controlled Manchuria, Mongolia, and the Tarim Basin, subjugating over twenty states east of Samarkand. Emperor Gaozu was troubled about the abundant Han-manufactured iron weapons traded to the Xiongnu along the northern borders, and he established a trade embargo against the group.
In retaliation, the Xiongnu invaded what is now Shanxi province, where they defeated the Han forces at Baideng in 200 BC. After negotiations, the heqin agreement in 198 BC nominally held the leaders of the Xiongnu and the Han as equal partners in a royal marriage alliance, but the Han were forced to send large amounts of tribute items such as silk clothes, food, and wine to the Xiongnu.
Despite the tribute and a negotiation between Laoshang Chanyu (r. 174–160 BC) and Emperor Wen (r. 180–157 BC) to reopen border markets, many of the Chanyu's Xiongnu subordinates chose not to obey the treaty and periodically raided Han territories south of the Great Wall for additional goods. In a court conference assembled by Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BC) in 135 BC, the majority consensus of the ministers was to retain the heqin agreement. Emperor Wu accepted this, despite continuing Xiongnu raids.
However, a court conference the following year convinced the majority that a limited engagement at Mayi involving the assassination of the Chanyu would throw the Xiongnu realm into chaos and benefit the Han. When this plot failed in 133 BC, Emperor Wu launched a series of massive military invasions into Xiongnu territory. The assault culminated in 119 BC at the Battle of Mobei, where the Han commanders Huo Qubing (d. 117 BC) and Wei Qing (d. 106 BC) forced the Xiongnu court to flee north of the Gobi Desert.
After Wu's reign, Han forces continued to prevail against the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu leader Huhanye Chanyu (r. 58–31 BC) finally submitted to Han as a tributary vassal in 51 BC. His rival claimant to the throne, Zhizhi Chanyu (r. 56–36 BC), was killed by Chen Tang and Gan Yanshou (甘延壽/甘延寿) at the Battle of Zhizhi, in modern Taraz, Kazakhstan.